Trying Assamese tribal food would be my biggest adventure this year. I had two traditionally festive meals, learnt about the local xaak – saag and vegetables, ate my first bug – yes, a very crunchy and very nutty silkworm, and popped a spoonful of bhut jolokia pickle in my mouth – accidentally of course (I got few extra servings of rice beer to wash it down).
It’s been tremendously gratifying to attend Gitika’s pop-up sessions peppered with her stories about her food and culture. While the last one was a Rongali Bihu meal in April-May to celebrate the new year and the harvest, this time I went for her winter special – the Na-Khuwa Bhooj which marks the winter harvest of paddy. The festival is celebrated by the tribes in Assam during the November-December harvest. Rice being the most important crop in a rural home, relatives and neighbours are invited over for a meal; they believe that the first harvest shouldn’t be eaten alone.
The meal traditionally starts with paah proxad – prasad made with black chana, coconut, moong, distributed after the prayers. This is followed by rongalau fry – crisp pumpkin fritters made with a mix of rice flour and besan. Then comes the lavish meal; rice served with various meats, curries and chutneys. Gitika took us carefully through it, step-by-step starting with alu aru til pithika – spicy potato and black sesame mash with a strong flavour of raw mustard oil, xevali phool maas’or khar – river fish (we had katla) cooked with night jasmine flowers and khar (alkaline powder made with plantain roots). Water bugs were smashed and tossed with green chillies and garlic to make crunchy, spicy chutney.
Meats like pigeon, duck, goose are consumed to warm the
body. We had kumura aru haanh – duck cooked with ashgourd; robust meaty flavour with a hint of just one or two ingredients. That’s the beauty of the north-east Indian cuisine; cooking with just a few ingredients and letting the meat or vegetable shine through. The duck intestines were crispy, bacon has got nothing on them. And then there was gahori lai xaak – pork, the regular feature, cooked with lai xaak – mustard greens.
Being an agriculture dependant community, a tribal Assamese meal is a celebration of their local produce and Gitika Saikia is doing a commendable job of introducing us city folks to her rural roots. Her next pop-up, Magh Bihu of Assam, has been scheduled on 9th January. Checkout her FB page for details, and keep yourself free.